We look at how sites like Facebook are working to stop piracy by devaluing privacy, and the ethics and success of such strategies in the digital era.
Recent changes to copyright law are attempting to protect against and capitalise on unauthorised use of intellectual property on the sharing platform of the internet. However, there have been concerns raised as to the propriety of protecting content online in user-driven environments, and even criticisms that movements in this direction violate user privacy.
Europe, which globally has the biggest problem with piracy, has announced proposals for changes to copyright law in its 2020 Digital Single Market Strategy. The changes will ask large user-generated content platforms to automatically monitor content and either block or pay royalties for any licensed content that IP owners have protected on the site. Similar to Youtube’s Content ID system which scans video and music, the automatic monitoring will surely affect social networks and blogging platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr and Imgur, but also potentially non-profit sites like Wikipedia.
The proposals present a few problems - the most prominent being that ‘copyright bots’, that is, automatic AI systems that detect copyright infringements cannot always be accurate, especially regarding exceptions to copyright law such as content protected under the ‘fair use’ doctrine. Automatic scan-and-takedown processes are already employed on Facebook and Youtube, and the copyright bots have faced much criticism for ineffective automatised processes, causing much authorised content to be automatically removed where a small amount of human interaction could have identified the content as lawful. This is where the ‘Save the Meme’ movement has originated, with fears that detectors will incorrectly identify content that is covered by the ‘fair use’ doctrine.
The concept of fair use, which allows content to be reproduced in certain circumstances, for example for reporting and educational purposes, is also being challenged in the proposed changes. News publishers will be allowed to remove or capitalise (dependent on the country’s law) on re-used content even if its re-use is deemed to be an exception to copyright law such as ‘fair use’.
A second major problem that the proposals present is that content shared privately will be monitored - for example, a video shared to your facebook friends list will be scanned for rights-protected content - and this is arguably a violation of privacy. The European Board of Commission has been criticised for a ‘workaround’ to human rights legislation by asking platforms to negotiate agreements rather than asking platforms to scan all user-generated content, which is prohibited by the Electronic Commerce Directive, a legal framework adopted by the EU in 2000.
This drives the question, then, of whether it is even appropriate to protect IP on the web, and even whether it might infringe on user’s privacy and freedom of speech to do so, in an act of censorship that has been dubbed ‘Orwellian’. But seeing as it can be agreed upon that intellectual property should be protected in order that IP creators can continue to produce worthy content, what are the alternatives in the digital age?
Some alternatives are being explored that redefine how we interact with and share intellectual property. Youtube, of course, with its Content ID system that gives power to the IP owner in that they can choose to block or capitalise on reproduced content, has been praised for continuing its tradition of a large database of user-generated content, whilst giving IP owners a share of ad revenue or blocking content, as they prefer. Spotify and Netflix too, in their subscription systems have seen success, although there are also fears that Netflix could be increasing piracy.
Other potential solutions to the problem of piracy in the digital age include ‘pay what you want’ or ‘pay what you can’ options for media consumption. These are in response to the assertion that media is ‘too expensive’ for consumers to purchase legitimately, which has been indicated as a key driver for piracy in many studies. In 2007, this model was trialled by band Radiohead, in an initially digital-only ‘pay-what-you-wish’ release for its seventh album, ‘In Rainbows’. The experiment had mixed success. On the one hand, the widespread digital availability drove piracy, and ‘In Rainbows’ was pirated at 10 times the rate of comparable releases. But on the other hand, the album made more money during its digital release period than generated by the total sales of Radiohead’s previous album. Of course, this model appears strategically unsound for emerging artists, who, unlike Radiohead, cannot rely on their global popularity to market new releases. But artist Chance the Rapper, who recently became the first unsigned artist to win a Grammy, has disproved this idea, similarly seeing success and recognition despite giving his music away for free.
The landscape of media is clearly changing in response to changing technologies, and it’s becoming evident that anti-piracy strategies should adapt in line with this. Millennials, rapidly becoming the most powerful and dominant age group, have a singular relationship with piracy that can shape our understanding of how to combat the practice. This is particularly true when mobile trends are considered in relation to media piracy, as the tendency to ‘go mobile’ shows no signs of slowing down and will continue to impact our daily behaviours in unprecedented ways. Additionally, there are fears that generation that succeeds millennials, Generation Z, could bring about a ‘Generation Free’, as they have not become accustomed to paying for TV, movies and music. With these substantiated anxieties that could point towards a collapse of the media industry as we know it, it’s time to act now to protect your content - and a change of tactic is required.